Friday, 8 October 2010

Fear and Loathing in Camden and Covent Garden: a Savage Tale of Minibar Booze, Audience Combat, and Grim Temperature Fatigue in the Deep Bowels of London

Well, the mini-tour is over, and I can report that it went brilliantly! The first night at RAW Poetry in King's Cross was a good if unremarkable gig. The second London gig at the Poetry Cafe was much better, enlivened not just by the presence of Helen from Bird of Paradox but by a much bigger, better, more poetry-focused crowd - for my money, RAW suffered from the bar having a clear divide between people there for the poetry night and the normal bar regulars, so there was a sense of having to fight the room quite a bit during the gig. I managed this, largely because 'Eggshells', the second poem in my set, is a pretty heavy piece which essentially bludgeons the audience into submission. But even I was frustrated in my attempts to end the set on a high with 'The secrets, almost silent, that we sang', precisely because there was still too much cordite in the air from the previous piece. I went off to respectable applause (even from some of the disgruntled regulars), but with the knowledge that there was more I could have done.

Later, back at the hotel room, over a bag of Minstrels from the Tesco Express and an overpriced bottle of Stella from the minibar, I dissected this. I had been reading Stephen Fry's new memoir on the Kindle earlier that day, and fry reports a meeting he and Hugh Laurie had with his agent during which they were asked who they most admired, so he would have a sense of how to model their careers. This seemed like a useful gedankenexperiment from the artistic point-of-view though, not having an agent, I was forced to put the question to myself. The obvious answer, tragic though it is, is that I have always, as an artist, wanted to be like Tori Amos. I cannot help this. At gigs and events where I talk to cooler, savvier types, I mention Cohen, Dylan, Bowie etc, but the fact is that what I really, in my heart of hearts, want to be is a kooky little elf-maiden who sings songs about pain and voodoo and faeries and being in the wrong band with a tear in your hand. Tori was the first contemporary musician and songwriter who really marked me, who spoke to me (prior to hearing Under the Pink I was the sort of horrible little prig for whom it was classical music all the way, I'm ashamed to say), I was hers before I was anyone else's, and hers I shall remain. Despite my occassional brutal immersion in the soundworlds of Diamanda Galas or Nick Cave, deep down I have always been and will proudly remain an ear with feet, and so it seemed to me that it was time to think about how Tori would have played the gig I'd just done.

I thought about Little Earthquakes. Said album contains some of Tori's most heartbreaking numbers, but it would be unlistenable without the leavening influence of more humourous ditties like 'Leather' and 'The Happy Phantom'. I leafed through my folders. Did I have something that might fit that bill? As it happened, I did: a poem called 'A Short Course in Suicide Writing' that, while staying in a dark area, deals with its subject matter with levity and wit, and would fulfil the task of what ritual magicians call 'banishing with laughter', in that it would lighten the mood after 'Eggshells' and leave people feeling better.

Well, I tried this at Covent Garden and - even though I didn't finish 'Suicide' due to Poetry Unplugged's rigorous 'five minutes max' set rule - I went down a storm. Many people came up to me afterwards asking when I would next read in London, including the fantastic and clearly insane genius Kevin Reinhardt of Vintage Poison, and one woman who told me in very cross tones that the fact I didn't actually live in London was no excuse, and that if that was the only thing stopping me I had better jolly well sort that out. Helen and I were even stalked on our way to the Tube by another performer that night who expressed similar sentiments. All of these enquiries I dealt with using the wit, grace and aplomb which are typical of me, i.e. I mainly repeated the words 'er', 'um' and 'well', giggled, looked down at the floor, said 'thank you' and 'oh, now' and tried as hard as possible to divert the conversation back onto the subject of their work and how much I liked it. Still, even I, in my diffident way, could see that I had, to use a particularly modern, urban form of litotes, not sucked.

I was not alone in falling foul of the five-minute rule, incidentally. Another fine poet whose work was cut off just as it was getting interesting was the wonderful Sabrina Gilbert, who finished her set with a poem about sex which was, ahem, prematurely concluded, and who cannily turned this to her advantage by informing the audience that they could hear the end of it on one of the two CDs she had brought with her, 'The Family Album' ('As in,' she informed the gasping audience, 'music for makin' families...'). I of course bought the other CD she had brought with her, because (a) *koff* I have no wish to be thought of as prurient *koff* and, (b) I had been tremendously impressed with a poem Sabrina had read about Darfur, and she told me that the other CD had more of her political stuff on it. Her work really is amazing, and she reads it with the level of professionalism you often find in American, hip-hop-influenced poets, and which I wish to Godess more poets from other backgrounds would employ. You really should go and check her out, she's awesome.

(I would also recommend that, if you are in London, you attend an event at the Poetry Cafe, which is a fine venue, but with this proviso: the basement in the cafe, where the events are held, gets very hot very quickly, and after about two or three hours any event there turns into a grim endurance trial for the audience and, I imagine, the performer. I was lucky enough to go on during the first half, but as audience alone for the second I have to admit that I often found I couldn't applaud as much as I wanted to, purely due to fatigue from the overpowering heat. Helen avers, and I agree with her, that a key focus of the Poetry Society's fundraising in future should be getting some decent air-conditioning installed in the basement. I realise this may be a difficult one to get past a lot of poets, many of whom are very right-on when it comes to environmental issues: but I predict once they are told it may mean louder applause towards the end of the night, they'll fall into line. The whores.)

And so, after bidding goodbye to Helen at Gloucester Road tube station, grabbing a six-pack of Heineken from the Tesco Express for roughly what it would cost me to have a single bottle from the mini-bar, ordering some room-service nachos and sitting down to watch The Best of Rudetube (perfect post-gig entertainment: a programme entirely composed of silly clips off the internet, demanding absolutely nothing of the attention span) on the telly, I congratulated myself on a successful assault on the Capital. Tomorrow I would play Hebden Bridge, a tiny little town in the North of England. What could possibly go wrong?

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